Linda Sue Warner had big ambitions when she arrived in 2007 as president of Haskell Indian Nation University, the only four-year college operated by the federal government for American Indians. Now she wonders whether those ambitions could cost her the job.
She envisioned major campus improvements and an expansion of the college’s programs. But she also proposed to increase the extremely small fees paid by Haskell’s roughly 1,050 students — $215 per semester, including room and board — to $1,000.
And that was where she ran headlong into the belief among many Haskell students and alumni that the government owes them a free or nearly free education, both by treaty and as compensation for generations of cultural oppression.
Students protested, and members of the Board of Regents called for Warner’s ouster.
“I feel strongly that these kids shouldn’t have to pay to go to school here,” said Haskell alumnus and Kickapoo tribal chairman Russell Bradley.
In September, amid the furor, Warner was sent to New Mexico on what the government said was a temporary assignment.
Warner and other Haskell employees have been ordered not to speak with reporters. Interior Department spokeswoman Nedra Darling portrayed the ban as an effort to keep track of media inquiries. “It wasn’t muzzling by any means,” Darling said.
Darling said there are no plans to replace Warner, who is scheduled to return to Kansas in January.
As for the proposed fee increase, which would be subject to government approval, it is all but dead.
Haskell was founded in 1884 as an Indian boarding school, created to purge all traces of native culture from its students, who were often forcibly removed from their families at ages 5 to 7. They wore military uniforms and followed a spartan regimen. Some died of exposure or malnutrition.
The school became a junior college in 1970 and a four-year school in 1994, and now attracts students from more than 130 tribes. They can earn degrees in business, education, environmental sciences and American Indian studies.
Haskell is one of three dozen tribal colleges in the country, most of them scattered across the Midwest and the West. Unlike Haskell, most are run by the tribes themselves and admit non-tribal members.
Haskell’s extremely low cost reflects the U.S. government’s treaty obligation to tribal members, said Bob Musgrove, a former Haskell business school dean.
The college receives about $14 million a year from the government. Congress approved a revised formula several years ago that would provide the school with more money but has never appropriated the extra dollars.
Warner, a member of the Comanche tribe and a former professor of education at the University of Missouri, the University of Kansas and Penn State, had envisioned graduate programs, including an online doctorate in tribal leadership, and perhaps an undergraduate degree in accounting to help students land jobs.
“We should be the center of Indian education in this country,” she said in an interview before she was barred from talking to the media.
When Warner proposed raising fees — citing dilapidated classrooms, unhealthy dining hall food, inadequate computers and a host of other basic needs — the federal Bureau of Indian Education stood behind her. So did several influential campus leaders.
But soon came a backlash from students, faculty members, parents and alumni. Students began a petition drive to get Warner fired.
A 45-year-old student, Brenda Councillor, said she was forcibly graduated and barred from campus after clashing with Warner and leading the petition drive. The college said it asked Councillor to leave because she had earned enough credits to graduate.
Travis Brown, a 32-year-old senior from Dallas, said students are not opposed outright to paying more, but first they want more accountability from administrators and a greater say in campus policies.
“It’s not that students don’t want to pay tuition, we just want to see more results,” he said.
According to the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, yearly tuition — without room and board — at the 34 other tribal colleges averages $2,317 and ranges from $720 at Dine College in Arizona to $6,800 at Wind River Tribal College in Wyoming.
American Indian students account for only 1 percent of total college enrollment in the U.S.
The six-year graduation rate for American Indian college students is about 39 percent, compared with 56 percent overall in the U.S. The success rate at Haskell is even lower: a 26 percent graduation rate for students who entered in the fall of 2002.
Still, Haskell teachers and students describe a close-knit campus where individuals are not allowed to fall through the cracks.
“They come here with a lot of baggage,” said registrar Manny King, a mentor to many students. “Alcoholism, single parents, drug use, high poverty, really no direction and no support.”
Freda Gipp, a Warner assistant and Haskell parent, said the debate over tuition is simply a sign of growing pains, not dysfunction: “Even though we’ve been around for 125 years, it’s still early in the game for us as a college.”